Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

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Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that this post’s headline does NOT mean that I think there is anything wrong with “Those Winter Sundays.” On the contrary, Hayden was a genius and that poem is one of the greats. And because it’s so great, it’s starting to become over-familiar. For this list, I wanted to branch out into a few less famous poems, and highlight some modern work that I think is interesting along the way. Sounds OK? Good, let’s begin.

1: “A Letter of Recommendation” by Yehuda Amichai

Like “Those Winter Sundays,” this poem sheds a light on a loving but complicated relationship between a father and a son. Amichai’s poetry often points toward a sort of strained relationship—not necessarily with his father himself but certainly with the beliefs his father gave him and the culture he brought him up in. But in this poem, all of those differences give way to a tenderness that is just as much a part of the son as the Ten Commandments he learned as a child, so ingrained in him now that he can’t help repeating them “like an old tune someone hums to himself.”

2: “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

Lee’s father, Lee Kuo Yuan, is easily one of the biggest influences on his son’s poetry. His spirit and personality is an almost unavoidable presence in Lee’sĀ  work, from his first collection Rose to more recent poems like “Three Words.” Growing up as Lee did in a “old-fashioned Chinese family,” his father was the center of the household, and thus he becomes the center of many poems. Lee casts his father’s persona in a number of roles: life-giver, protector, healer, and even a sort of conduit to God. And while the most famous of these poems is “The Gift,” I find “Little Father” touching as well, balancing a son’s grief over his father’s passing with his hope for a life after death and his determination to go on living as his father would have wished.

3: “The Harvest Bow” by Seamus Heaney

Heaney is another poet whose father, Patrick, often preoccupies his imagination. His first book opens with “Digging,” a young poet’s attempt to explain himself and his craft to a father who can’t understand either, and his last book, a posthumously published translation of Aeneid Book VI, began as a tribute to Patrick in the collection Seeing Things.

One thing that becomes apparent about Patrick Heaney if you read his son’s interviews is that he was a man of few words, one for whom action was almost always preferable to speech. This is why the speaker in the poem feels the need to “glean the unsaid off the palpable”: the things his father makes give him the connection to him that was missing in their communication. In a way, I think this makes the poem comparable to “Those Winter Sundays”: it’s about recognizing love even when it’s not expressed as we would expect or wish.

4: “I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir

Similar to “The Harvest Bow,” this poem is about the poet finding a connection to her father—silenced now by death instead of disposition—through physical objects, in this case, his sweat-stained shirt. Like much of Swir’s poetry, it is an illustration of a scene, simple and understated, but moving and powerful.

5: “Learning to Pray” by Kaveh Akbar

A lot of poems focus on the father as a sort of model—of strength, heroism, virtue, or what have you. In this one, he seems to his child—and consequently, to the reader—to be almost otherworldly. I love the phrase “that twilit stripe of father”: “twilit” because he prays at sundown, but this word also suggests to me the idea that his father is approaching a liminal space, halfway on earth and halfway in heaven. The father is his son’s first idea of something beyond, his first vision of “wonder,” as Akbar likes to call it.

6: “Why do you stay up so late?” by Don Paterson

At first glance, this one might seem a little off-theme, and maybe my reasons for including it will not be as apparent to everyone else as they are to me. But, this poem is dedicated to the author’s son, and it does feature a father in a real, earnest dialogue with his child about one of the most important things in his life. There’s an intimacy about it that draws me into it. All of the other poems I’ve mentioned so far are written by children addressing their fathers and seeking to understand them better. Here we have the reverse, a father who wants to meet his child where he is and bring him into his own private world.

 

That’s all for now. What are some of your favorite poems about fathers and children? Let me know in the comments.

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